You Cannot Reason With Right-Wing Conspiracists

Marjorie Taylor Greene’s idea of “free speech” is full immunity from empirical reality. Photo: Michael Reynolds/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

There are many explanations on offer for the bitter, “uncivil war” tone of contemporary politics and government, and at least some share of blame to go around. But I’m not going to indulge in false equivalence here: The radicalization of the Republican Party and its dominant conservative ideological faction has been — and for the foreseeable future will continue to be — the prime engine of polarization and gridlock. I’ve felt that way since the George W. Bush administration, and it’s a big reason why a card-carrying centrist like me has abandoned all hope of bipartisan “problem-solving.” Nine years ago President Obama confidently predicted the GOP “fever” would “break” if he won reelection. Clearly the “fever” is running higher than ever in the Trump era, with no particular end in sight.

Understanding that differences between left and right aren’t just a matter of reasonable differences of opinion on legitimately disputed facts is the first step towards comprehending the current political environment. The fact that conservatives have a tendency to subscribe to conspiracy theories or dismiss inconvenient facts is not an absolute bar to debate. But as Greg Sargent pointed out recently, MAGA ultras exhibit a more systematic rejection of verifiable reality in favor of ideological systems that interpret (or reinterpret) everything according to an antagonistic depiction of the left as virtually demonic:

Political theorist Laura K. Field has a new essay that helps us make sense of this. Field’s key distinction is between conspiracy theories, which make purportedly grounded claims of some kind, and conspiracism, which is more a habit of mind, a tendency to unshackle oneself in a way that permits a kind of open-ended indulgence in fabulism….

In too many cases, Field argues, empiricism is entirely absent. This tendency sometimes attacks the political legitimacy of the entire left by conflating liberals and Marxists into one monolithically tyrannical political force. Or it attacks the legitimacy of institutions which have fallen under the left’s cultural spell (such as the media or “woke” corporations, never mind the latter’s pursuit of a distributive agenda the left hates). Or it attacks the political system itself (which the left has manipulated, rendering elections illegitimate).

To this way of thinking, the opposition, which is imagined to include the entire political media universe (except for a few trusted “red-pilling” outlets), nearly all of academia, and since January 20 the executive and legislative branches of the federal government (in alliance with liberal state and local governments) is so drenched in malice and insincerity that its dismissal of lurid conspiracy theories is proof of their truthfulness. There is no easy way out of this loop of self-validating belief and disbelief, mostly driven by fear and fury. And it’s not just a matter of white (or white male) insecurity about endangered status, as some observers condescendingly suggest: There is a moral content to the fear and fury alike.

As Thomas Edsall noted in a review of academic research on Trumpism, MAGA folk tend to think of the opposition’s constituencies not simply as hostile or alien, but undeserving of either status or respect. Scottish social scientists Stephen Reicher and Yasemin Ulusahin, says Edsall, argue that white conservatives mourn “actual or potential loss of dominance, [and] a sense of resentment at this loss which is bound up with issues of entitlement — the undeserving are taking what we deserve — and hence provides a moral dimension to restitutive actions, and finally the prospect of redemption — of restoring the rightful order of things — through action.”

These feelings of “undeserved” displacement “are not unmediated perceptions of reality. Rather, they are narratives offered by leaders with the aim of mobilizing people around the leader as representative and savior of the group.”

Enter Donald Trump and his angry political allies, who have an explanation that may defy common sense, but possesses uncommon power. And it plays into a very old right-wing perspective on modern life in which those people — the young, the immigrants, and minorities generally — are in alliance with leftist elites rooted in academia and the media who seek total power by replacing the old dominant classes of hard-working Americans with parasites who feed on their labor and wealth. I first encountered this nightmare vision of the overclass-underclass alliance in Robert Nisbet’s 1975 book The Twilight of Authority. But this basic paranoid view has been central to generations of “producerist” attacks on intellectual and financial elites thought to be exploiting ignorant proles to displace traditional cultural institutions and folk (or in its deadly German version, volkisch) virtues.

Not everyone who likes Donald J. Trump, of course, is subject to this sort of wild projection of hatefulness onto the opposition. And despite their cowardice in the face of Trump’s conquest of the GOP and the conservative movement, many conservative Republicans can be reasoned with and aren’t inclined to send the rest of us off to reeducation camps. Indeed, many of them would rather break bread with liberal “elitists” than with Marjorie Taylor Greene or Josh Hawley. But as Jonathan Chait pointed out back in 2015, the American conservative movement and the party is has long since controlled were fertile ground for fabulists:

The first moment when conservatives seized actual control of the party came, of course, in 1964 through the Goldwater movement. The Goldwater activists were driven by conspiratorial thinking. The campaign’s main tract, “A Choice Not an Echo,” written by Phyllis Schlafly, argued that the party could never lose if it campaigned wholeheartedly on conservative issues, but it had been betrayed by “a small group of secret kingmakers, using hidden persuaders and psychological warfare techniques, manipulated the Republican National Convention to nominate candidates who would sidestep or suppress the key issues.” Another key tract, “None Dare Call It Treason,” by John Stormer, alleged “a conspiratorial plan to destroy the United States into which foreign aid, planned inflation, distortion of treaty-making powers and disarmament all fit.” It sold 7 million copies and was distributed widely by Goldwater volunteers.

This apocalyptic strain has regularly infused conservative rhetoric. 

And now it’s fully blooming, as even regular Republican pols regularly fulminate about socialist plots to “cancel” all conservatives, destroy all religion, seize all firearms, and in the meantime open up the borders to let more of those people come in so that the real American majority can be overwhelmed and subdued. This is a fever that is showing no signs of “breaking.” And there’s no known vaccine.

You Cannot Reason With the GOP’s Conspiracists